When I’m out and about in Asheville, there’s usually only ten things on my mind, and they’re all food!
Asheville is the greatest food city in America as far as I’m concerned. Everything from blood sausage to edible flowers, and burgers of course. Always burgers. Here are just ten of the amazing things I ate while out and about in Asheville recently…
1) YOGURT w/ OLIVE OIL – Dawn and I have ben going to Sovereign Remedies a lot lately, in part because they have started doing breakfast every day, in collaboration with Chef Susannah Gebhart from OWL Bakery, which we don’t get over to as often as we’d like. Having OWL Breakfasts available to us downtown is exciting, and of course collabs between our local chefs — in this case Chef Gebhart and Chef Graham House of Sovereign Remedies — are always exciting! One of the best things on the breakfast menu in my opinion, is a simple, elegant, dish that’s not loaded with too many carbs, calories, or fat molecules (as compared to the egg sandwich below for example) and I recommend it highly! It is the yogurt and olive oil with local fruit, candied herbs, and local edible flowers. For one thing, it looks really cute and pretty, and I give extra points for that. I absolute love the little glass jar that the yogurt comes in. I’m a sucker for cute containers. The yogurt itself is sooooo gooooood! Smooth, rich, creamy, not thick and goopy like some yogurts can be. The olive oil on top is a super-high quality, mild, domestic olive oil, that enhances both the flavor and texture of the yogurt with it’s own unique, smooth, richness. The local fruit in the compote changes regularly of course, depending on what local fruits are in abundance. I’ve had this dish twice and the compote was different each time, but absolutely delicious in both cases. The most surprising, and in some ways most delightful, element on the plate had to be the candied herbs. They look a little bit like bleu cheese crumbles, and that’s what I thought they were at first, but they are of course sweet little herby sugar crystals. Yum! l really love this dish, and as I said, I recommend it for you as well!
2) FRIED EGG SANDWICH – So, just fuckin’ look at that thing. The photo above should really be all the prompting you need to go get this fried egg sandwich with bacon and cheese at Sovereign Remedies for breakfast or lunch. The bread is from OWL Bakery. Everything else is also local as fuck and delish. Local eggs are better. 100% true. Now, this is a decadent sandwich, as I’m sure you can tell. The butter involved in making this thing alone should require a prescription, or at least a permission slip from your health care practitioner. It’s not a sandwich for the faint or frail of heart, and in fact you probably shouldn’t even mention the word “heart” anywhere near this beast, as it’s likely to attack. All joking aside, it’s a fucking great fried egg sandwich, made with nothing but the best ingredients, and if you want something like this, THIS is something like this, so go get this!
3) BEEF BRISKET – My friend Scott and I went to Foothill Butcher Bar in West Asheville the other day, and boy oh boy was ol’ Scotty jells of my plate o’ brisket! “Gosh, that looks good,” he said. And when he tried he, “Oh, man, that’s really good! Of course, i have to go the burger everywhere I go.” Ha ha! I paraphrase poor Scott, of course, but that’s essentially how that shit went down. Foothills has an awesome burger and that was actually what was on my mind when we arrived, but then I took some of my own advice, and checked out their specials board. Brisket? I’m on board! Plus their mac n cheese is great, and green beans are one of my top fave veggies. I figured that the green beans would be super local, fresh and delicious, and they were, for real! So much snap and flavor! I ate them all. The mac was great too, as expected, but yeah that brisket. HOLY… I… it… good lord. So tasty! Savory AF, but not overly salted, the meat was moist and fell apart, while the fat just melted away. There was a beautiful savory brown sauce on the meat and plate that I could have sipped from a brandy glass all day it was so good. This whole dish was truly, deeply satisfying, and immensely enjoyable. Oh, and since I gave Sovereign extra points for a cute jar, I’m also giving Foothills extra points for their classic diner wares, and especially for the really nice knife that came with the brisket. It was handsome, solid, well-made, and perfectly weighted. I like me a good knife.
4) BBQ Watermelon Salad – Speaking of knives… watermelon! Yeah, I know that makes no sense. And that it’s kinda weird that I’m reviewing the watermelon salad pictured above, and not the 800 gorilla sitting next to it, buhhht, that salad was so fuckin’ gooood! I mean, that gorilla is the famous Buxton Hall Barbecue double cheeseburger, and it’s fucking phenomenal and I love it and give it a million thumbs-up etc etc, but again, that little dish of watermelon was kind of the star of this meal for me. It was called a BBQ Watermelon Salad on the menu, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in terms of temperature and preparation, but it was indeed a simple, cold dish of fresh local delicious watermelon, cubed and tossed in a dry rub of BBQ spices and salt. It was fucking great. I ate it one piece after another like an assembly line and I had an actual sad when it was all gone. So, yeah, that burger is a beast that they literally have to stab with a knife before they bring it to your table, and I recommend it 1,000% (atsalotta percent!) but as is often the case with the rotating side dishes at Buxton for me, this BBQ watermelon salad was exciting & unique, as well a refreshing combination of sweet, salty, spicy, and… um… watermeloniness? Get it while you can! Local watermelon season is over in a flash!
6) INCA DINNER I – Giant. Pile. Of. Meat. Chef Samtiago Vargas has been teaming up with the Bywater, where he parks his Out of the Blu Peruvian Fusion Cuisine food truck for lunch during the week, and has been doing special “Inca” and “Atahualpa” dinners a couple times a month, utilizing the large, open, pit barbecue in back of the bar, next to the train tracks by the river. I wrote a comprehensive review of the first Atahualpa dinner that you can read HERE, and I’ll let you know that these Inca Dinners are kinda the same, but slightly different. They are the same in that there are large amounts of amazing barbecued meats from a variety of domesticated farm animals, raised on local farms. They differ in that the Atahualpa Dinners are ticketed, with a limited number of seats available, they food and service is quite a bit fancier, and since they happen when the Bywater is closed, they are more tranquil and exclusive. The Incan Dinners happen while the Bywater is open and rockin’, and so they are non-ticketed, available to everyone dining at the Bywater, and so tend to be more raucous and a party-like atmosphere, as opposed to the dinner-party-like atmosphere of the Atahualpa events. Also the plating is more picnic style, and service is more casual. Both of the Inca and Atahualpa dinners I’ve been to so far have been excellent, and I planned to go back as often as possible. So much meat, for one thing. Gahd, I love meat. I’m sorry, Animals. Just don’t stand still for too long, and I won’t eat you.
7) SAUSAGE PARTY! – Remember a few scrolls up whenI said that it’s exciting when local chefs collaborate? Well, Chef Dan Silo from Sawhorse and Chef Josiah McGaughy of Vivian recently threw a party. A sausage party! Now, I used to book heavy metal bands back in Chicago when lived there, so I’ve been to more than my share of sausage parties #truestory but this one had actual sausages! You know: Cured meats in the shape of a penis? And boy howdy were they ever tasty! My server made an excellent recommendation, even though he somewhat warned me that it was a little different, perhaps even weird, he suggested the Boudin Verte sausage, with tarragon, chartreuse, flageolet beans, braised fennel root, and a sweet jam made from the fennel braising liquid, OJ, Pernod, onion, and orange, all cooked down with sugar and champagne vinegar to a “marmalade-ish kinda thing.” (I asked Chef Dan!) The jam actually really pulled the dish together and made it special in my opinion. I didn’t find this dish to be weird, but rather it was a very unique and surprising combination of flavors and textures that, when I got a little bit of everything on my fork, was close-my-eyes-die-and-go-to-heaven good. Yeah. That good. For real. First I took a bite of just the beans. Yum, Tasty, Then just the sausage, Yum! Very tasty, with a pleasant “wurst” type of texture. Next I tried just the fennel root, which I love the flavor of in general, and wow, the braise and therefor the texture on this large piece of fennel was perfect. Then I combined the three, and boom, things really started happening, but it wasn’t until I discovered that sweet jam hiding behind the fennel, and added it to my next bite, that it all came together and killed me dead, sent me skyward, then beckoned me back to Earth to finish every last frickin’ speck and droplet of edible mass on this plate. The next time you see the words “sausage party,” think about putting on your Slayer shirt and heading down to wherever a local chef might be slingin’ house-made cured meats in the shape of a penis! There’s some great sausage going on in this city. Take advantage!
8) BLOOD SAUSAGE – Speaking of sausage… Paddy is very easy to talk into an Asheville Food Tours lunch junket at Cúrate. Very easy. Shhh… don’t tell him that I had Paddy hypnotized so that now I merely have to mention Cúrate and he’s like, “Let’s go to Cúrate!” Bwahaha! Have I ever told you that I am an evil genius? Well, it’s true, and Paddy loves Cúrate, and we go as often as we can manage. We never have reservations, so we generally sit at the bar, although we will take a table if / when available, and you might be surprised to find out that at certain times of day you can walk-in to Cúrate, no reservations, and get a seat! So, bar or table, Paddy and like to split a few of the famous tapas between us, and one of our go-to dishes is the blood sausage. There was a time in my life that I had never eaten, and felt as though I would never eat anything called “blood sausage.” Ew. Gross. Thought my younger, more fearful self. Nowa days I’m like, “Blood sausage? Yeah, gim.” If you’re skittish about blood, brains, hearts, organ meats, and other “strange” bits ‘n’ pieces of animals, I understand. I was once you. And brains still make me wanna gag. Can’t help it. Don’t like brains. BLOOD however, is delicious! This particular blood sausage is made in house, seared, and served with caramelized onions, toasted pine nuts, micro greens, and a fancy sauce on the plate. Be sure to get every single bit of all of that on each forkful. The combination of flavors is where it’s at. GAH! So GOOD! This one is actually hard to share. I’m going to have to have Paddy hypnotized again. “Want some blood sausage, Paddy?” “Blood sausage? I don’t see any blood sausage.” Perfect. Oh, and you may know that I don’t always cotton to onions. That mostly applies to uncooked or undercooked onions. I like cooked onions, and as you can see in the picture, these onions are cooked within an inch of their very existence. YUM! Shout out to Chef Frank Muller! Holding down the fort at Cúrate for what seems like forever. Much love and respect for him!
8) SUMMER SQUASH TORTILLA – The other night I had a wonderful meal with Dawn, and my nephew Asa, and our “adopted” nephew Jack. We went to Zambra, where Jack just started working and already seems well-loved. He’s a good kid. And I’m telling you what. Zambra is just simply one of the best freaking restaurants that this little ol’ town in Appalachia has ever had. And it’s officially been around forever, remaining excellent through thick and thin, economic hard times, tourism booms, personnel changes, and even an ownership change many years ago, and yet, it is consistently, mind-blowingly great to this very day, day after day, year after year. It’s a special place, and those who have eaten there recently, or ten years ago will absolutely confirm that statement. Currently Chef Ryan Kline heads the kitchen crew. I’ve been a fan of his food for years, so I was super happy when he found a home at Zambra, where he has commanded the menu with respect for the traditions, while adding a panache of his own to help keep things contemporary and exciting. So, yeah, Dawn, Asa, Jack, and I sat there in the darkness (Zambra also wins for darkest restaurant in Asheville) for two solid hours, and ate a virtual freight train of food. Scallops, sausage, gnocchi, bao buns, mussels, bone marrow, elotes, smoked eggplant baba ghanoush, shishito peppers, mixed greens, and the summer squash tortilla with smoked tomato aioli that you see pictured above. We also ate three different desserts: Flan, something chocolate, and something that was neither flan nor chocolate. Can’t remember. All of it was awesome, but by the end of this meal I was so braised, dazed, and sau-tazed in a food coma that I couldn’t remember my own name let alone that of the second or third desserts. Not one scrap of food was left unconsumed, and every single bite, seriously, every single itty-bitty bite was fucking amazing. I ooohed, aaahed, and dropped about a million eff bombs while we were eating. The moral of this story is: We all love you, Zambra! And by “all” I pretty much mean all of Asheville, judging by the public response to the post about this meal I made on Facebook. As for the tortilla in the picture: GAH! It was soft, warm savory, and delicious. I could have eaten ten of them.
9) EGGPLANT ROLLATINI – One Tuesday morning, Mike Napelitano, the chef & co-owner of Manicomio pizzeria on Biltmore Ave downtown, invited me in for lunch to help them celebrate their two year anniversary. I didn’t say no. I mean, c’mon. Am I stupid? No, I am not stupid. Mike and his partner Jon Leibowitz, and their crew are making the best pizza in town in my opinion (they have two Stoobie Awards to prove it) but they also have some of the best Italian entrees I’ve ever eaten in my life. No joke. I mean, for classic,family style, Italian-American fare, Manicomio can’t be beat. So, I invited my mom to join me for lunch and we split the eggplant rollatini pictured above, along with some spaghetti and meatballs, and two dessert (hold onto your hats for the dessert portion of this list). I can not tell you how much we both enjoyed all of it. We’re not Italian-American, but were are adjacent, kinda-sorta, not really, but in a small way. My mom grew up in a town with a large Italian American population, and many of her best, lifelong friends and best food experiences are from those early days of her life. So, in turn, I grew up in a family that loved and idolized Italian food, and we often went to the famous North End of Boston, and other areas around us to small, Italian, family-recipe centric restaurants. Also, my GF Dawn grew up with her Italian-American relatives, who actually owned and operated an old school Italian family run restaurant in their home town. Aaallll of that is just to offer my credentials, such as they are, in judging this particular genre of food. And as judgement of this rollatini, I say, HOLY CRAP it’s good. It is basically a rolled-up log, if you will, of thinly sliced eggplant stuffed with ricotta and mascarpone cheeses, then covered in mozzarella cheese, baked until awesome, and then served swimming in some of the deepest, darkest, dankest, red sauce on planet Earth and a side of pasta. Fuhhhhhck. So good. I am swimming in it in my mind right now. So, please go to Manicomio to wish Mike and Jon a happy anniversary, and get the pizza of course, but also branch out to some of their excellent entrees! I highly recommend this particular dish, but everything I’ve had so far has been great. PRO TIP: Bring your appetite, because whoa. Ain’t no joke, Yo.
10) PISTACHIO & RICOTTA CHEESECAKE – Okay. Look at the picture above. Take it in. Absorb it. Close your eyes, and think about what you saw, then open them again. That is a slice of pistachio & ricotta cheesecake from Manicomio, and it was insanely good. Soft, moist, light, flavorful, sweet but not too sweet, and very different than any “cheesecake” I’ve ever had before. It consists of layers of pistachio and ricotta creams separated by sponge cake. Remove all previous ideas and conceptions of cheesecake that you might have from places like the Cheesebrick Factory out of your mind, and re-imagine it as something delicate not dense, refined not dumbed-down or gussied-up, and fucking reasonable in terms of it’s not, like, covered in chocolate chips, red white and blue sprinkles, and gummy worms with fucking sparklers stuck in the top, or whatever sideshow that cheesecake has become in this modern era of American consumer madness. So, it was nice to just eat a delicious dessert of a normal size, that was heavenly, satisfying, and yes, filling, without making me feel like I just ate 5 pounds of red clay and Dixie Crystals. Mike and Jon get some of their desserts from local makers, but many of the confections in their dessert case, such as this cheesecake, come from a company based in Italy called Bindi, who have been producing and distributing the highest quality, authentic, Italian sweet treats for over 75 years! Mike stands by them 100%, and since learning about the company from him, and trying several of their offerings, so do I. I swear I grew up eating Bindi cannolis as a kid, because the ones in Mike’s case seem exactly the same to me. My mom and I shared the cheesecake above and we just kind of stared at each other in disbelief over how good it was, as it disappeared into our faces two spoonfuls at a time. So, as difficult as it may be, be sure to save room for dessert when you go to Manicomio. We also had profiteroles and they were AWESOME!
And there ya go. I hope you enjoyed this installment of “10 Things I Ate About Asheville!” Please stay tuned for more from this series throughout the year, as I eat my way through the greatest food city in America, Asheville, North Carolina!
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.